On the heels of the Republican National Convention, two of our Republican strategists break down the programming that culminated with Donald J. Trump accepting the party's nomination for President. Rich Meade and Andrew Terp share their thoughts on the major themes and spotlight moments from the 2020 RNC Convention. Last Friday, our Democratic experts provided their commentary on the week's DNC events, which can be found here. The Republican National Convention proceeded relatively seamlessly, despite organizers having to scrap plans for the original Charlotte, North Carolina convention site, and the fallback Jacksonville, Florida, location. Historically, most incumbent Presidents opt to limit their time on the convention stage to their final Thursday keynote speech. President Trump, unsurprisingly, defied tradition and made appearances throughout the week alongside many of his family members. As Hurricane Laura wreaked havoc on Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas, convention speakers made special mention of the work the Trump Administration is already undertaking to respond to the natural disaster. While both the 2008 McCain and 2012 Romney conventions intersected with the landfall hurricanes or tropical storms, this is the first time in recent history a sitting GOP President has been required to respond to a natural disaster during convention week.
With President Trump behind across the majority of battleground polls – but within the margin of error – he came out swinging in his Thursday evening nomination speech. From the White House South Lawn, President Trump pulled no punches as he juxtaposed his Administration’s successes with Biden’s priorities. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump’s campaign platform was expected to significantly prioritize his economic success. While the U.S. economy has not yet returned to its 2019 highs, the President promised a second Trump term would bring with it the economic prosperity of his first three years in the Oval Office. The President contrasted his record of success over four short years with Vice President Biden’s 4.5 decades in office as jobs were offshored and endless wars dragged on. He also highlighted his America’s record job growth, energy independence, and fair-trade victories. President Trump frequently emphasized his opponent’s close ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders suggesting that the former Vice President is “a trojan horse for socialism.” His remarks further reinforced how divisive the 2020 election is, with both candidates urging the American electorate to support them not only for their policies, but in opposition to their opponent.
On Monday, to kick off the RNC, Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley headlined the evening’s agenda, alongside Donald Trump, Jr. Sen. Scott, and Ambassador Haley discussed their own unique backgrounds to communicate the positive message of the diversity within the GOP ranks and their efforts to bring the promise of America to all Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or background. As America continues to respond to issues of racial inequality, President Trump rolled out a diverse cast of speakers who spoke to the economic growth his Administration brought Americans of all ethnicities. This message was expanded upon by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday evening, discussing the historic low unemployment levels the African American community reached under the Trump Administration.
The third day of GOP speeches was headlined by Vice President Pence who spoke from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He highlighted the President’s success in passing landmark criminal justice reform in 2018 and his strong support for the military and law enforcement officials. The Trump Administration continues to starkly contrast their record with calls to defund the police emanating from activist groups, and the Vice President argued that Americans “won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” On Thursday, the President continually hammered home his law and order message that was further buttressed by Mayor Giuliani, President of the New York City Police Benevolent Association Patrick Lynch, and Alice Johnson, a former federal prisoner pardoned by President Trump.
As several key Senate races remain inside the polling margin of error, many of the vulnerable GOP Senators from purple states, including North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Maine’s Susan Collins, and Colorado’s Cory Gardner, opted to not take the stage this week and, instead, focused on outreach to their constituencies. Notably, even as the GOP convention held events in Charlotte on Monday, Sen. Tillis opted not to take the stage and instead focused on speaking with his Tarheel constituents regarding the Senator’s COVID-19 recovery efforts in Congress. Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona did not speak from a podium but provided a brief video that aired before primetime speeches. The only vulnerable 2020 GOP Senator to “take the stage” during primetime was Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who appeared in a prerecorded video from Des Moines and chose to tie her electoral chances to President Trump, who according to recent polls, enjoys a narrow lead in the Hawkeye State. On Thursday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell branded the Senate a “firewall against Nancy Pelosi’s agenda,” an implicit reference to the importance of battleground Senate races should President Trump lose on November 3.
In addition to united front of GOP speakers, communicating the President’s successes, the convention also provided an opportunity for the early shortlist of presumptive 2024 GOP presidential candidates to quietly pitch their own credentials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senators Tom Cotton and Tim Scott, and Vice President Mike Pence are all expected to throw their hat into the ring four years from now, depending on the outcome of the November election. The GOP campaigns in 2022 and 2024 – and the policies they prioritize – will lay an important marker for how the GOP evolves in a post-Trump GOP.
During this week’s convention, the Republican National Committee aimed to balance the desire of the President to play to his base with his keynote and fiery speeches from his family members and closest allies, and appeal to more moderate independent with uplifting speeches from Sen. Tim Scott, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, civil rights leader Clearance Henderson, and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. They also chipped away at the President’s negative ratings with testimonials on the more human side of Donald Trump: Rep. Jim Jordan spoke to the President’s compassion after the tragic death of his nephew, former pro football player Herschel Walker spoke about his nearly 40-year friendship with the President, and praise for the President’s leadership on criminal justice reform from Jack Brewer, a life-long Democrat. Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell also made a compelling point as the first openly gay cabinet member. The RNC also focused heavily on policy and not just partisan attacks against the other side. The subject of school choice was presented by Tera Myers, an Ohio mom and school choice advocate, but it was also woven into the speeches from Sen. Scott, congressional candidate Kim Klacik, and Georgia State Rep. Vernon Jones who is a Democrat. Sister Deirdre “Dede” Byrne delivered a compelling speech on the right to life. Upcoming Republican politicians were also prominently featured by the RNC, including 25-year old congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn, Sen. Joni Ernst (IA) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY). While the spotlight was on President Trump this week, giving stage time to these diverse, emerging leaders is a means to help bolster the party’s image with a range of voters. Concluding two weeks of unconventional conventions, what have we learned? President Trump frequently emphasized his unmatched record of economic success, prior to the global pandemic. While his disapproval ratings remain high and his numbers are down in many battleground states, politicos are quick to remember this period of time in 2016 and suggest that the race may well be closer than is often being reported. Social media reveals there were six times more viewers for the RNC vs. the DNC on CSPAN’s livestream, and some suggest the level of pro-Trump and conservative postings on Facebook might indicate a possible shift in the electorate. Looking at those who wager on the elections, the large gap that existed earlier this summer is beginning to close. We can expect this tightening trend to continue in the coming weeks, barring some major unforeseen event.